The key to the success of each of this week's CDs is an ampersand. You can believe that the little "&" on each front cover is a hint that the combination of the separate parts makes for a potent mix. This is true of the mixtures on the first three albums. As for our "Under the Radar" item, it's a cast recording of a musical that, since its last production, has had its title slightly changed, just removing the ampersand - to make a point.

(Jamie deRoy & friends, Vol. 7)

Harbinger Records

It's always good news to see that ampersand in the now-familiar credit on the work of "Jamie deRoy & friends." It means that what follows is a list of talented people, some of whom may not have a large recording output yet. This producer and lover of talent chooses her "friends" well, and has presented many in her cabaret variety shows, cable TV program, and through this series of albums. Volume 7 is the first that diverges from what has been an ongoing theme of material reflecting on childhood and family, beginning with the first, The Child in Me. I love and highly recommend the whole series; all of the recordings have heartfelt performances and provide wonderful, nostalgic looks at youth. This new CD is not a complete departure, as it features some of the same participants. Also, the earlier recordings were not kiddie music by any means, just wonderful songs that happened to focus on growing-up days, and now we have a look at adult romance: the good times and the not-so-good times.

The Real Thing begins on a high with the super Kane Alexander's truly exciting firecracker of a performance. Written by John Bucchino, who is at the piano, it's the pulse-quickening, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky moment of love, "That Smile." I've been listening to it a lot, and recommend it as the best pick-me-up track of 2006 thus far. Jamie appears on two tracks, a touching and understated version of Rodgers & Hart's "He Was Too Good to Me," and, in contrast, a busy production with the vocal group The Accidentals, "It's Over." A couple of songs here have appeared on other albums: Sandy Knox's "I Wanna Know," also known as "The Betty Crocker Song," is taken from another album and the wonderful Christine Lavin has recorded a few versions of her hilarious "Good Thing He Can't Read My Mind."

In sincere mode and sounding great, Billy Stritch reaps the rewards of a small coincidence: "gone" is the last word of Stephen Sondheim's "Good Thing Going" and the first word of the verse of Irving Berlin's lament, "What'll I Do?" Stritch sings Berlin's simple, spare song while playing the Sondheim melody on piano as a counterpoint. And he's accompanied by an elegantly stunning arrangement with strings and oboe. Glorious!

String players also enhance a well-sung "Superstar" from Euan Morton (whose solo CD is coming very soon). He sings with a rare vulnerability that seems devoid of calculation, and eschews melodrama. Another track that goes right to the heart is Rebecca Luker's version of "Time" from the musical Was with music by Joseph Thalken, who serves his excellent melody well as pianist and arranger here. It's immediately arresting with mood-setting chords and the first line: "There's a film that plays inside my head ..." The A+ lyric is by Barry Kleinbort, also artistic director for the album. It's hard to imagine a better interpretation but I suspect many singers who hear this will want a go at it.

The album title comes from the final number, "Hold Out for the Real Thing," by Michele Brourman and Karen Gottlieb, spectacularly executed by Karen Mason. Sort of a cabaret power ballad, if that's a category, it lets her build up to full voice without sacrificing the idealized hopefulness of the words. Life-affirming and belty: what could be better?

Returning as record producer is Paul Rolnick, who also provides electric guitar and back-up vocals on Marcus Simeone's lively "Fair Enough." Paul is joined, prominently, on back-up on the Morton and Mason tracks by Sara Krieger and The Accidentals' member and choral arranger, Margaret Dorn. I'd also like to give a nod to guitarist Kevin Kuhn whose work on five tracks is especially notable.

I hope there will be many more of the kids-and-family-themed collections in the future, but I'm glad to have this grown-up romance reality check. The CD plays like a cabaret variety show with well-done but sad renditions like Penny Fuller's devastating "Why Can't I Forget?" Jamie deRoy & friends' CDs will no longer be listened to with milk and cookies but may need to come with a two-drink minimum.


BeMe Music

Beckie Menzie & Tom Michael are based in Chicago and their reputation is based on good taste. There's an evident respect for the material and a joy for singing. An attractive modesty and lack of grandstanding make a listener warm to them separately or in tandem. Each has a couple of solo albums (one of Tom's made Talkin' Broadway's Top Ten list of vocals in the past). They have a few earlier duets on disc and often perform together with various theme shows.

Both are attentive to musical values, but phrase conversationally. Both have gentle voices that are unaffected, but they are not overly similar: Tom is the more reserved and Beckie can be girlishly sweet. Because of this contrast, the blend is never bland. The idea of Better Two-gether doesn't just apply to the singers harmonizing - half of the album is medley heaven. Things get off to a more-than-peppy start with a five-minute combo of "Swing, Mr. Mendelssohn, Swing" and "Sing, Sing, Sing." The next offering is the only cut I'd cut: a combination of two old pop hits, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" and "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me." The former worked when Dusty Springfield made it a powerhouse vocal blast, but these two oldies come off as too trite, light and relaxing. Trying to imbue them with sincerity underscores their weaknesses. On the other hand, a gorgeous four-song Everly Brothers hits medley is a revelation. The slowing of tempi proves the tunes can stand up to a more careful examination, and the emotion in the lyrics is more fully brought out.  This time, the magnifying glass works.

Tom is a classic ballad singer and gets to show that side; it's also interesting to hear what he does in a solo on "Devil May Care." The song is usually done at a fast clip as a romp or carefree throwaway, but he bites into the lyric and finds some tension.

I'd like to point out two strong (and very different) unfamiliar numbers. "Another New Place" by Stephen Wallem and Danny Musha is a song with some heft and heart, and both singers honor it with emotional vocal performances. Comic relief comes with the cute and astute observations on the personality type of a "Morning Person." This solo for Beckie, who capitalizes on the many comic moments, was written by Chuck Larkin and Cheri Coons, a writer with whom Beckie has collaborated before. Back in familiar territory, there's a generous sampling of Gershwin standards near the end of this satisfying album.

The beat is important and strong here. In addition to drums and percussion, instruments heard are trumpet, sax, bass, and wonderfully fluid piano played by Beckie. She did all the arrangements by herself, too, with the single exception being a collaboration with Jim Walton on a deftly exuberant prancing through "I'm All Smiles." That Mickey Leonard melody and Herbert Martin lyric is always a treat, but this specialty arrangement puts a little icing on the cake with bits of two other standards at the beginning and end: "When You're Smiling" and "Smile." With the infectious charm of this recital you can't help but smile.


Art of Life Records

These two jazz veterans, bassist Eddie Gomez and pianist Mark Kramer, have recorded show tunes over their long careers, including a few albums devoted to a single musical such as Evita en Jazz and 2004's new look at the score of Fiddler on the Roof. They often play in a trio and other formations, but here it's just the two, and it's a low-key, very pretty and very accessible album, even for those who only dip a toe in the waters of jazz.

There are five Broadway songs this time around: from Irving Berlin, "They Say It's Wonderful"; from Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's Gypsy they embrace "Small World"; and there are two from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue, "If I Loved You" and "Hello Young Lovers," which features some especially graceful sections, with Eddie's bowing and Mark's tip-toeing on the keyboard before they become more adventurous. Though it's not thought of as a show tune, the standard "I'll Be Seeing You" actually is from a Broadway musical, Right This Way, which lasted about two weeks.  Fortunately, the song has thrived for 68 years.  It's treated very respectfully here.

Songs from film are here, too. We get Cole Porter's "Easy to Love," a movie song originally intended for the stage (cut from Anything Goes). It's more abstract and exploratory than most of the album, and they take more liberties before returning to a more traditional chorus at the end. Their "Smile" is bittersweet and introspective; Mark's solo ending, a super-simple one-finger playing, is oddly effective. Also originating in motion pictures are "Call Me Irresponsible," a less often heard title song from 1965, "Moment to Moment" (Mancini/Mercer), and "It's Not for Me to Say" from a film called Lizzie, where it was introduced by Johnny Mathis and became one of his early hits. This album will have a special meaning to Mathis fans, as it also includes his smashes, "Wonderful, Wonderful" and "Chances Are." Gomez and Kramer make even pop ditties sound like little sonatas with their non-condescending approach.

This CD wears well. It's been my most constant companion while I work and relax this week. I'm impressed with the men on both sides of the ampersand. I love how Gomez & Kramer still sound like they're relishing melodies, even though they've been playing for years. Like the albums above, it's very romantic - maybe in small part because the whole thing was recorded on Valentine's Day.


Studio Cast

Love Is The Reason Productions LLC

No, it's not about Africa, the country. Africa is a troubled teenage girl at the center of this emotional and earnest musical. Africa Plumbridge has been performed in Chicago and was in the 2004 New York Fringe Festival, one of two productions winning the festival's award for Outstanding Songs. It was billed as Africa & Plumbridge, but now the ampersand has been omitted. Plumbridge is the last name of the woman who seeks to help and eventually adopt Africa. So, the removal of the ampersand puts the emphasis on the girl becoming part of her family and also keeps the spotlight on the teen.

I didn't see the show, but from research, including what's on the musical's website, there have been some changes. The CD booklet credits a different bookwriter, Carson Grace Becker, and the first name of Ms. Plumbridge has been changed to Susan, matching the name of Sue Carey, whose real-life struggle to help the girl is the basis for this piece.  Carey conceived the show and co-wrote the music and lyrics with Karena Mendoza.  (An earlier credit for additional material has disappeared.)  And yes, Africa is the real-life girl's name.  She is played on disc by a gifted singer, Janeece Freeman, who also did the role in the staged productions.  Freeman is exciting to listen to in the more dynamic numbers.

This 2-disc set is quite a production, with good sound quality. The cast is strong and gives a committed performance. Is this the next Great American Musical? No, but it has a lot to recommend it and is moving, often captivating and well worth experiencing. Many of the lyrics are more like devices to tell the story, dialogue set to music, rather than being full of clever or poetic phrasing. Some of the lyrics, because of the nature of what's going on, don't lend themselves to articulate characters and wit is not on the agenda. My pet peeve, impure rhyming, rears its head fairly often. There are some melodies that are just a means to an end, the end being musicalizing a confrontation. Some of it might work better as dialogue. So why I am recommending this? In large measure, the message and heart - and performances - rise above the shortcomings. That doesn't often happen.

There are some standout musical sections, with youthful energy, gospel influences, and integrity all around. As Susan, Linda Mugleston is appropriately forceful and determined, though she gets some of the relentless stuff. Most of Africa's solos are highlights, whether plaintive or soaring. Speaking of soaring, Jenny Burton is a marvel as the vision of Africa's grandmother in a few memorable segments. She also plays the judge which requires less singing. (Her regular musical partner, Peter Link, is the music producer and orchestrator.) "I Hold These Children in My Heart," for the nun (Julia Wade) who supervises the group home for the teens, is strong. Somewhat out-of-tone with the rest of the piece, but very welcome, is a cute cheer-up song, "Yankee Ingenuity," for the nun and three of her charges. William Michals, whose resume is long and whose deep voice is strong, is the corrupt doctor (it's a long story) but doesn't get the kind of melodies that let him really show it off; he's a powerful presence nonetheless.  In the smaller role of his nurse, Lynne Wintersteller (Closer Than Ever) is similarly frustrating to hear because of the same limitations.  The choral work is a major plus; the vocal arrangements are by Margaret Dorn (of The Accidentals mentioned in the first CD above).  She also sings in the chorus. 

The booklet has the lyrics and some very cool color costume sketches, which you can also see on the website along with the interesting background on this story and the foundation to help homeless and abandoned children and teenagers. It's a triumph of the human spirit and very life-affirming in the face of great odds. That will get my attention and my heart every time.

& that's all.

-- Rob Lester

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